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Bullies to the Weak, Cowards to the Strong Richard Cobden wanted to know why British policy towards China was so different to our policy towards the USA and European powers.

In two parts

By William Daniell (1769-1837), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

View of the European factories in Canton, by William Daniell.

About this picture …

A view of the Thirteen factories beside the Pearl River in Canton, now Xiguan, Liwan, Guanzhou. From 1757 to 1842, this was the only place in China where foreign trade could be conducted, and each of several European countries had a factory (not a machine shed but simply a warehouse) along the riverside. For Cobden, ‘free trade’ meant British and Chinese merchants respectfully buying and selling without interference; but for British politicians and their corporate cronies, it meant allowing the East India Company to plunder the Chinese Empire as soldiers plunder a captured town. The Treaty of Nanking, which ended The First Opium War (1839-1842), opened up five ports and gave Hong Kong to the British.

Bullies to the Weak, Cowards to the Strong

Part 1 of 2

On October 8th, 1856, Chinese authorities in Canton arrested twelve sailors for piracy. Sir John Bowring, governor of Hong Kong, demanded their release, as their ship the Arrow had flown (albeit illegally) a British flag. On the 22nd the obliging Chinese delivered the suspects up; on the 23rd, the Royal Navy nonetheless began a three-week bombardment of Canton. The following February, Richard Cobden expressed his outrage in the Commons.

I lay these things before the House as the basis for our investigation, not with the view of appealing to your humanity, not with the view of exciting your feelings, but that we may know that we are at war with China, and that great devastation and destruction of property have occurred.

What I ask is, that we shall inquire who were the authors of this war, and why it was commenced?* and that I ask, not in the interest of the Chinese, but for the defence of our own honour. I ask you to consider this case precisely as if you were dealing with a strong Power, instead of a weak one. I confess I have seen with humiliation the tendency in this country to pursue two courses of policy — one towards the strong, and the other towards the weak.

Jump to Part 2

* The affair of the Arrow ignited what is known as the Second Opium War, which brought the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 but is usually held to have ended in 1860 with the Convention of Peking, signed on October 24th, 1860, by Prince Gong for China, by Lord Elgin for the United Kingdom, and by Baron Gros for France. ‘Second Opium War’ is something of a misnomer. The First Opium War in 1839-1842 arose out of China’s attempts to stop smugglers from flooding China with noxious opium produced in India, at that time under the control of the British East India Company, though it turned into a broader erosion of China’s economic sovereignty. By 1856, opium was hardly being mentioned, though Cobden remarked that it was still being trafficked: the goal was quite openly to force China into letting the Company control Chinese industry and government as it did in India.


In 1857, Richard Cobden appealed to Parliament’s sense of honour, asking them to think twice about war with China. We must be honest about our motives, he said, because they revealed something about our country’s character. And to our shame, our foreign policy towards large and powerful nations appeared markedly different to our policy towards smaller ones. (56 / 60 words)

Part Two

By John King (1788-1847), via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

Sir John Bowring, by John King.

About this picture …

Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), who from 1854 to 1859 served as the fourth Governor of Hong Kong, an island ceded to Britain in 1842 by the Treaty of Nanking. “Sir John Bowring is an acquaintance of mine,” said Cobden at the start of his long address to the Commons in 1857, “of twenty years’ standing. I can have no vindictive feeling against him, and I have no desire for vengeance upon any person.” But he was scandalised by Sir John’s belligerence and by the manner in which Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, and his Government sought to justify the war. Parliament sided with Cobden that day, but Palmerston got his way in the end. In 1858, the Treaty of Tientsin gave the British the access they wanted, and the Convention of Peking two years later confirmed and extended its provisions.

Now, if I know anything of my countrymen, or of this House of Commons, that is not the natural quality of Englishmen. It never was our ancient reputation. We have had the character of being sometimes a little arrogant, a little overbearing, and of having a tendency to pick a quarrel; but we never yet acquired the character of being bullies to the weak and cowards to the strong.

Let us consider this case precisely as if we were dealing with America instead of China. We have a treaty with China, which, in our international relations with that country, puts us on a footing of perfect equality.* It is not one of the old conventions, such as existed between Turkey and the other European States, in which certain concessions were made without binding clauses on both sides. Our treaty with China binds us to a reciprocal policy, just as our treaty with America does; and what I say is, let us, in our dealings with that country, observe towards them that justice which we observe towards the United States, or France, or Russia.

Copy Book

* This was the Treaty of Nanking, signed at the end of The First Opium War in 1842, which ceded Hong Kong to Britain and opened up five ports to European merchants and their ships. That was not enough for the English industrialists, however. During his speech, Cobden brandished a resolution adopted by the East India and China Association of Liverpool, in which they declared that “The British Government should insist on the right of opening to foreign trade any port on the coast of China, or on the banks of any navigable river, at any time they may think fit, and of placing Consuls at such ports; that our ships of war should have the free navigation of and access to all the rivers and ports of China.” Imagine, said Cobden, demanding such a right on the Potomac, the Volga or the Seine!

* Cobden’s oratory was not without effect. The motion before the house that day, February 26th, 1857, was carried by 263 votes to 249; but soon afterwards Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, dissolved Parliament and nothing was done. The motion ran: “That this House has heard with concern of the conflicts which have occurred between the British and Chinese authorities on the Canton River; and, without expressing an opinion as to the extent to which the Government of China may have afforded this country cause of complaint respecting the non-fulfilment of the Treaty of 1842, this House considers that the papers which have been laid on the table fail to establish satisfactory grounds for the violent measures resorted to at Canton in the late affair of the Arrow, and that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the state of our commercial relations with China.”


Cobden admitted that the English had a deserved reputation for belligerence, but hitherto we had treated all nations alike. Now we bullied the weak, and cringed before the strong. Cobden reminded the House that our diplomatic relations with China were, like those with the USA and France, founded on equality, and he called on the Government to treat China accordingly. (60 / 60 words)

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